Category Archives: Music — 1960s

The Holy Bee Recommends, #20B: The Byrds (Mark II) Discography

Prologue: West Saugerties, NY. Summer 1967

The instruments and recording equipment are set up in the basement of the big pink rental house on a rural woodsy road, just as they had been for several weeks. The intention is to make demo tapes, and the recording rig is simple — a Nagra tape recorder, an Ampex mixer, and three microphones (although many decades later this set-up will be hotly disputed by audiophiles on internet forums.) One by one, the band wanders in. Garth Hudson settles in behind his Lowrey organ, Richard Manuel parks himself on the piano bench, or maybe the drum stool. Rick Danko and Robbie Robertson strap on a bass and electric guitar, respectively. At the center of the group of informally arranged musicians, with a short haircut and a 12-string acoustic, is Bob Dylan. Dylan has not recorded or toured since the previous spring. A motorcycle accident sidelined him, and the enigmatic songwriter decided to use his injuries (the extent of which is shrouded in mystery) as an excuse to go off the grid for awhile. Now he’s ready to dip his foot in the water again, but he’s going to do it his way. Not with a new tour, or album, but with a batch of original songs…intended to be given away to other artists.

Hudson hits “record” on the tape recorder, and Dylan begins tentatively strumming. The musicians, who were Dylan’s backing band on his last tour, try to anticipate where this brand-new composition is going. The bass and organ start fumbling along. Dylan doesn’t seem too sure, either. He leans into the microphone, and lets loose a stream of nonsense…

“Now look here, dear soup, you’d best feed the cats/The cats need feeding and you’re the one to do it/Get your hat, feed the cat/You ain’t goin’ nowhere…”

The real lyrics are soon filled in and the song eventually comes together, as do several others…Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman strategically “leaks” the final tape of fourteen finished demos (out of dozens recorded) to various artists and producers that autumn, and gets his adding machine ready to tally the song publishing windfall that’s sure to come.

The backing musicians (with the addition of drummer Levon Helm) become known as The Band and are soon signed to Capitol Records.

A copy of the tape ends up in the possession of one Chris Hillman…

The first song from these “basement tapes” to be made public is “The Mighty Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo),” recorded by the British group Manfred Mann and released on January 12, 1968. It goes to #10.

Dylan, in the vanguard as usual, sends up the signal flare that is the first indication of a sea change in popular music. Psychedelic excess would soon be old hat, and the traditional sounds of American pre-rock roots music from the first half of the 20th century would be the guiding inspiration for many well-known acts in 1968, and into 1969 and the 70s. Dylan finally breaks his public silence by putting out an album, with no publicity, in the final days of 1967 — a modest collection of archaic-sounding original folk and country songs called John Wesley Harding that sounds nothing like the speed-freak rock of his previous few albums. None of the tracks were from that summer’s basement tapes.

The Byrds’ Notorious Byrd Brothers drops a mere two weeks later… still steeped in trippy experimentation and sonic fripperies, and if Roger McGuinn has his way, more of the same is to come…a precocious Georgia millionaire’s son and Harvard dropout named Gram Parsons would change all that…

The Byrds had changed management in the autumn of 1967. Jim Dickson was out, Larry Spector (no relation to the gun-happy record producer) was in. Larry Spector also managed a band called the International Submarine Band, led by Gram Parsons. The visionary Parsons was a walking music encyclopedia (especially country), and had a dream of creating the perfect blend of old-school country and gospel-inflected soul/R&B. He called it, somewhat loftily, “Cosmic American Music.” The ISB recorded an album that was currently sitting in the vaults of LHI Records, waiting for release. The ever restless Parsons, like David Crosby the indulged son of an immensely wealthy family, ran out of patience and bailed on the band, looking for his next big opportunity.

Roger McGuinn had an ambitious vision, too. He wanted to explore the more experimental path indicated by some of the material on the last few albums. His interest in modern jazz was joined by a fascination with the possibilities of the newly-invented Moog synthesizer. If McGuinn followed his muse to its full fruition, the Byrds would be pioneers of a new genre — a spacy, science fiction-influenced blend of electronic music and jazz. But fate had other plans.

McGuinn knew the recently reduced Byrds couldn’t pull off his new ideas as a trio. He wanted to add a keyboard player, and asked manager Larry Spector if he knew of any. Gram Parsons, wasn’t a keyboard player per se, but he could handle almost any instrument passably, and Spector felt he would be a good fit for the band. Parsons joined the Byrds in February 1968. McGuinn wasted no time in explaining his ambitious plans for the next recording project — a massive double album, two dozen songs, following a musical chronology. The first few tracks would be the old-time string band music of 1920s Appalachia, then the material would gradually morph into modern folk and country, and the album would close with a sequence speculating on the future, featuring space-age electronica.

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L.A. Cowboys on Sunset, early ’68: Kelley, Parsons, McGuinn, Hillman

Gram Parsons didn’t care a fig for McGuinn’s electric space jazz, and instead raised the idea of a start-to-finish traditional country album. He managed to keep a straight face while convincing McGuinn that country audiences were incredibly loyal, and would provide a hardcore fan base for years to come. McGuinn, blasted by the full force of Parson’s enthusiasm (which could be formidable while it lasted), swallowed the whopping mistruth and agreed to put his concept album on hold for the time being. The Byrds would turn totally country. Hillman, the old bluegrass hand, gave the idea his full support. The 12-string Rickenbacker was put aside, Parsons mostly ditched his planned role on keyboards and joined McGuinn on acoustic guitar, and the group booked time in a Nashville studio to commence recording almost immediately. The only issue: McGuinn and Hillman had not written any new songs since Notorious, certainly none in their recently-chosen genre. No problem! Parsons had a couple of stellar originals in his back pocket. Traditional country and bluegrass covers could also fill the some of the space. And they had a secret weapon: the tape of Dylan demos, all of which could be easily adapted to the new style. 

Over the course of six days in early March, in the sterile confines of a usually regimented, disciplined song-factory studio in the heart of the country music capital, the Byrds burned their previous incarnation to the ground, and built a new one. With the sometimes-puzzled help of a few crew-cutted Nashville session pros (they didn’t know what to make of these shaggy, mystic West Coasters who seemed to take forever to pin down a take), the core of their new album came together. The session players went from bemusement to admiration, and all of them recall it as a happy experience. They remember the stodgy, fluorescent-lit Nashville studio growing hazy with pot smoke, red wine being passed around, and everyone having a grand time. In a surprise move, the Byrds capped off the week with a live appearance on none other but the famous Grand Ole Opry radio show, broadcast on WSM from the hallowed Ryman Auditorium. (You have to say “hallowed” before you mention the Ryman. It’s a rule of music writing, like using “jangly” for the Byrds, “enigmatic” for Dylan, and it’s always “the great” Hal Blaine.)

Before the appearance, the group had to grit their teeth through a hostile radio interview with WSM DJ Ralph Emery, who made clear his distaste for “hippies” and the counterculture movement, and was the mouthpiece for all the conservative Southerners who resented this long-haired rock group for invading their territory. He refused to play the just-recorded “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” on the air. The song is done in a solid country arrangement, but because it was penned by left-wing hero Bob Dylan (who applied his usual lyrical surrealism) and performed by a group of freaks, Emery received it with condescending disdain. “What’s the song about?” demanded Emery. McGuinn was honest: “I don’t know.” The Byrds could not leave the radio station fast enough. McGuinn and Parsons took their revenge by writing “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man” about Emery, holding him up as the epitome of every piss-ignorant racist redneck stereotype they could devise. (The song wouldn’t make it onto the new album, but it didn’t go away.)

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Onstage at the Ryman, Parsons front and center

They nervously took the stage at the Ryman on March 15, 1968, joined by pedal steel guitarist Lloyd Green. Kevin Kelley was denied the use of his full drum kit as per Opry tradition, and had to make do with a pair of brushes and a single snare. As they were introduced to a smattering of applause, there were some boos, jeers, and catcalls (“Tweet, tweet!” “Get a haircut!”). They launched into their first number, and actually won a large portion of the audience over with their sincere performance and clear affection for their newly-adopted genre. They had agreed ahead of time to cover Merle Haggard’s “Life in Prison” as their encore, and the MC announced that number to the live audience and over the airwaves. But then, in a Crosby-like display of hubris, Gram Parsons stepped to microphone and announced a change of plans — they would close with the Parsons original, “Hickory Wind.” The Opry brass were furious, and the group destroyed whatever goodwill they had earned with the rest of their performance. They were banned from future performances.

The newly-recorded album was also facing a crisis. Evidently, Gram Parsons was still under contract to LHI Records. There was a possibility that the tracks on which he sang lead might have to be re-recorded by McGuinn. The process to do just that began, then the legal disputes were suddenly settled. McGuinn cannily decided to trim Parson’s lead vocal appearances anyway. The newest Byrd originally sang lead on six of the eleven tracks, and McGuinn reduced it to three. The Byrds would not become the Gram Parsons Show on McGuinn’s watch. Despite being granted freedom to dictate the creative direction for a short while, the upstart had been schooled as to whose band it really was.

There was good news, though, as the new Byrds left Nashville and hit the road all that spring and early summer. They had finally stabilized as a live act, and turned in solid sets night after night. After ignoring their early hits during the last year with David Crosby, they reintroduced material like “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Eight Miles High” as highlights of the first half of their concerts. Their country material, augmented by touring musicians Jaydee Maness on pedal steel and Doug Dillard on banjo, would be featured in the later portion. Parsons, so recently the dominant force in the recording studio, seemed to now accept his secondary status on stage, bouncing between electric piano and acoustic guitar, happily harmonizing on all the stuff that predated his time with the band, and only taking two or three lead vocals for himself. Perhaps he already had his eye on the door…

On a short U.K. trip that July, the Byrds socialized frequently with the Rolling Stones. Gram Parsons developed something of a man-crush on Keith Richards, trailing after him like an over-eager puppy and babbling non-stop about the virtues and sub-genres of country music. When word reached the Stones that the next stop on the Byrds’ touring itinerary was South Africa, Mick and Keith explained to the somewhat naive Parsons that playing to segregated audiences in an apartheid country was not cool. McGuinn, who had at various times worked closely with South African musicians such as Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba, was encouraged by them to see the situation firsthand, and ignored the Stones’ judgement. When the plane left London for Johannesburg on July 9, 1968, Gram Parsons was not on it. He quit after having been a Byrd for less than five months.

But what a legacy he left them! The album he willed into existence through sheer force of personality came out on August 30. Sweetheart of the Rodeo not only signaled the birth of the second phase of the Byrds, it became the founding document of the country rock of the 70s and the alt-country movement of the 90s.

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The Holy Bee Recommends, #20A: The Byrds (Mark I) Discography

My wife loves to cook, and she loves to have music on while she cooks. She usually doesn’t pick any specific album or artist, but uses a Pandora channel curated to her tastes (R.E.M., Indigo Girls, Melissa Etheridge, etc.) During her pot- and pan-rattling and music listening, I relax in the next room sipping my pre-dinner cocktail. (Don’t judge — my job is to do all the post-dinner washing and scrubbing.) Every so often, something incredibly random that Pandora, in its infinite AI wisdom, has decided fits on that channel will grab my ear from her countertop speaker. Maybe something featuring guitar with a touch of “jangle,” some vocal harmony, and a little light on the bass end. I hold up my SoundHound app and the song is invariably something from Matchbox Twenty or Mumford & Sons or some other generic Wonder Bread radio-rock band. I grimace and briefly wrestle with the notion that I may actually like these bands (or at least these songs), but then find relief in the knowledge that these guys are clearly channeling the Byrds. Maybe they think they’re channeling the Beatles, or Big Star, or R.E.M, but no…it’s the Byrds, whose legend seems to be fading even as their influence remains pervasive, if by now second- or third-hand.

I’m talking primarily about the first version of the Byrds here. Most people who know their music history know that the Byrds were really two bands — the 1965-67 folk-influenced rock band, and the 1968-73 country-rock band. The only thing the two had in common was lead guitarist Jim (Roger) McGuinn. The second iteration of the band we’ll leave for another entry next month.

The iconic five-piece original line-up lasted just over a year, but they made a hell of an impact…

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Jim McGuinn, with his distinctive square-framed tinted glasses, mushroom of hair, and 12-string Rickenbacker guitar was the group’s visual anchor, usually parked stage left. In the center, working a tambourine for all he was worth, was vocalist and primary songwriter Gene Clark. Next to him was rhythm guitarist David Crosby, shoulders draped in a bottle-green velvet cape and flashing a lopsided, mischievous grin. The backline was bassist Chris Hillman and drummer Michael Clarke, both glowering stand-offishly under identical Brian Jones-style blonde bowl cuts fringing their eyebrows. Ethereal McGuinn and the deeper-voiced Clark traded off on lead vocals, or sung in unison. Crosby added the distinctive high harmony vocal. The driving engine was McGuinn’s electric 12-string, providing the adjective that’s always used to describe the Byrds’ sound — “jangly.”

All of them got their start on the coffeehouse folk scene. Three of them were already music business veterans. And none of them really got along with each other very well. The Byrds were all born into, if not privilege, then at least comfort. David Crosby’s parents were literal millionaires, who kept him out of juvenile hall as he spent his teen years crashing cars and vandalizing property. When Michael Clarke dropped out of school to “find himself” on an odyssey down the west coast, his doting grandmother sent him care packages and cash. This led to a certain self-centeredness in all the band members that contributed to the group’s eventual demise. And this is why I always preferred (and romanticized, I suppose) more working-class rock bands, who fought their way up from nothing together, and had a little more team spirit. The early-Sixties “folkies” always rubbed me the wrong way, anyway. White, well-scrubbed, middle-class college types warbling the “music of the people” with lilting, clearly-enuciated phrasing,  and being so goddamned precious about it. They looked down their noses on “commercial” rock and pop, all the while judging and backstabbing each other mercilessly over their perceived “authenticity.” They were just as competitive as anyone else in the music business, while pretending to above such things

Jim McGuinn of Chicago always seemed somewhat otherworldly. A quiet, aloof presence, at first glance almost shy, but with an unstoppable ambitious streak and an iron will that kept him on top as the de facto leader of a very tempestuous band. He attended music school, and went professional at an early age, specializing in folk. As a teenager in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was a touring member of the Limeliters and the Chad Mitchell Trio, playing the 5-string banjo. When Bobby Darin introduced a folk music segment as part of his live act, McGuinn was his accompanist on 12-string acoustic.

Gene Clark of Kansas City had played in various rock and folk groups since high school. He was discovered and hired by the famous folk collective the New Christy Minstrels in 1962, joining them for two albums before quitting. Sensitive and high-strung, Clark had a smooth tenor voice and a knack for songwriting.

David Crosby of Hollywood. Jesus, this guy. He impulsively became a folk musician out of rich-kid boredom, after dabbling in acting. He was spoiled, extremely temperamental, and thoroughly obnoxious. He admitted to being a “terrible folkie,” unable to properly finger-pick guitar in the traditional folk style (even his strumming was erratic). But he had a pretty voice.

McGuinn, Clark, and Crosby had all been aware of each other as fellow members of the L.A. folk scene, and they hung out together at the Troubadour Club in West Hollywood. In the first flush of Beatlemania, they put their still-shorthaired heads together and came up with a brilliant idea — combine the lyric poetry and protest songs of folk god Bob Dylan with the big-beat sound of The Beatles! They convinced a deep-pocketed music producer by the name of Jim Dickson to serve as their manager. He provided the trio with free studio space and unlimited time therein, and used his connections to get Columbia Records interested in hearing them. Fewer bands have ever been handed such an auspicious starting kit on a silver platter.

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The Jet Set, 1964: Crosby, Clark, and McGuinn

The trio — known as the Jet Set — immediately set to work recording demos, mostly from the pen of Gene Clark. The songs were decent enough, but still missing something. A more electric sound perhaps? McGuinn and Crosby were blown away after seeing the Beatles’ film A Hard Day’s Night in August of 1964. The film prominently featured George Harrison playing a 12-string Rickenbacker electric guitar, which at the time of the movie’s production was still a one-off prototype. The Byrds immediately had Dickson shell out for the now-available Rickenbacker, with a blonde wood finish, and also Harrison’s preferred 6-string, a plum-colored Gretsch Tennessean.

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As they developed their sound further, committing to a more rock-oriented approach, they realized they needed a bassist and a drummer on a permanent basis. A friend of the trio, songwriter Ivan Ulz, recommended an 18-year-old dropout he knew from San Francisco. Michael Clarke (born Michael Dick in Seattle) had never touched a drum kit before in his life. His sole percussion experience was playing bongos on the beach like the beatnik he was. But he looked perfect. Strikingly handsome with a head full of shimmering hair, already insanely long. He was immediately hired and brought to the studio space, where he was given a pair of drumsticks and some cardboard boxes and told to master the rudiments of rock and roll drumming while funds were gathered for a real drum kit. 

With McGuinn firmly installed on the Rickenbacker, the instrumental roles of Clark and Crosby were up in the air. Originally, Clark played rhythm guitar and Crosby’s sole task was to provide harmony vocals. But his awkward gyrations onstage during an early practice gig at the Troubadour provoked audience hysterics, and convinced everyone he needed to be stock-still and behind an instrument. At first, the bass player vacancy appeared to be neatly filled — but Crosby found he couldn’t play single-note bass and sing at the same time. So the Gretsch was stripped from Clark and given to Crosby, who could comfortably strum rhythm while harmonizing. A bass player would have to found elsewhere, as Clark was even weaker on the instrument.

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They didn’t look far. Dickson, whose original production specialty was bluegrass, had a pet project in the form of bluegrass combo the Hillmen, named after their young mandolin prodigy, L.A. native Chris Hillman. The Hillmen could not get a record deal, and had recently gone defunct. Like Clarke and the drums, Chris Hillman had never even held a bass guitar before. That did not seem to be an obstacle to Dickson, who assumed anyone who could play mandolin could play bass. Hillman was duly hired, strapped to a cheap red Japanese bass guitar, and told to straighten his naturally curly hair into the proper British Invasion bowl cut. (His instrument was later upgraded to a Fender, and later still to a nice Guild semi-hollow body with a sunburst finish.)

Over the course of a memorable Thanksgiving dinner at the end of ‘64, ideas for a new band name were tossed around by the band’s brain trust (Dickson and McGuinn) after they found out that there was already a band called the Jet Set. “The Birds” quickly came up — it had that all-important “B” at the beginning, putting people in mind of that other “B” band, but it didn’t become a lock until they came up with the key spelling twist. “The Byrds” sounded suitably British. (Also, there was already a British rock band called the Birds, featuring future Rolling Stone Ron Wood.)

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1st official photo session, January 1965. L. to r. Chris Hillman, Gene Clark, Jim McGuinn, Michael Clarke, David Crosby. Hillman’s hair-straightening hadn’t quite taken yet.

Rehearsals and demo sessions completed (the Jet Set demos can be heard on The Preflyte Sessions compilation), hair all grown out, and a recording contract in hand, the band did not even play a proper gig before heading into the Columbia studio on Sunset Boulevard to record their first single on January 20, 1965.

Or, more precisely, McGuinn went into the studio, accompanied only by session musicians. In what was common industry practice, Columbia did not want to waste expensive studio time recording take after take with untested instrumentalists, so they brought in some ringers. The label bosses grudgingly accepted McGuinn (they originally wanted Glen Campbell on the 12-string), but he would be backed by members of L.A.’s fabled “Wrecking Crew” — a loose-knit squad of seasoned pros who played on just about every pop record recorded in L.A. in the 1960s. So Crosby and Clark waited impatiently in the control room as McGuinn laid down the backing track with Larry Knetchel (bass), Leon Russell (electric piano), Bill Pittman and Jerry Cole (rhythm guitars), and the great Hal Blaine (drums). McGuinn, Crosby, and Clark taped their vocals later.

The song? Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Dylan’s version was not even released yet, but Dickson got his hands on an early version recorded for and rejected from Dylan’s 1964 album Another Side of Bob Dylan. Their studio-assigned producer, Terry Melcher, made some great post-recording production choices: McGuinn’s guitar is boosted to the max, and compressed heavily to provide that long sustain (“jangle”), with the rhythm guitars faded low and the electric piano entirely dropped (sorry, Leon). The other primary instrument is, of course, the tambourine, mixed high with heavy reverb. Funnily enough, I was unable to discover the actual tambourine player on the track (my guess would be Blaine via an overdub). They retained only one of Dylan’s four verses, and focused on the chorus, turning Dylan’s epic poem into a perfect, glistening pop song. “Folk rock” was officially born. Continue reading

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The Holy Bee Recommends, #16: “Beatles ’66: The Revolutionary Year” by Steve Turner

In these virtual pages, we’ve already discussed why 1966 was a revolutionary year in 41tfo6prkll-_sy344_bo1204203200_general. Now, to continue our celebration of this landmark year’s 50th anniversary, we’ll get specific. What did 1966 mean to The Beatles? According to Steve Turner’s excellent new book, Beatles ‘66: The Revolutionary Year, it was the crux of their existence as a working band — building on past triumphs, peaking with their most remarkable work, and even sowing the seeds of their eventual demise. Turner considers the events of 1966 too important to be condensed and shoehorned into a typical Beatles bio, and the year deserves its own book.

It was first and foremost a transformative year for them. In the space of just a few months, they went from their matching suits and famous pudding-bowl haircuts, bashing out “She’s A Woman” into a wall of deafening screams, to being draped in beads and velvet, sporting moustaches and soul patches, and beginning the recording process for Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. In between, they made the momentous (and unprecedented for a 60s “pop group”) decision to quit touring, produced what many feel is their greatest album, Revolver, and its accompanying single, “Paperback Writer/Rain,” and embarked on individual journeys of personal growth and self-education that fundamentally altered their relationship with each other and how they approached their art.

The catalyst for all of this was the fact that the first part of 1966 was the least active period of their professional lives. It wasn’t always going to be that way. 1966 was supposed to follow the pattern of 1964 and ‘65: film a movie in the first few months of the year, a world tour in early summer, a U.S. tour in late summer, a U.K. tour in the autumn — and writing and recording three hit singles and two hit albums in the midst of all that.

The pattern was broken when a suitable film idea could not be found. Initial talk about adapting Richard Condon’s 1961 Western novel A Talent For Loving came to naught. The film was eventually made in 1969, with Richard Widmark, Cesar Romero, and Topol (!) in the roles intended for the Beatles (one assumes a fourth role would have been created for the fourth Beatle.) Boggles the mind how anyone thought a very-adult Old West sex farce would be a suitable vehicle for four English musicians, but stranger things have happened.

So after a soul-punishingly brutal schedule since the onset of Beatlemania, with no movie 8d389a137df76159148ff5091cba9ba1shoot happening, The Beatles had over three months off. The only thing on their work calendar for January was doing some overdubs for the film of their famous Shea Stadium concert from the previous summer. Once that was done, John and Ringo skipped town to vacation in Trinidad, where Ringo celebrated being out of the public eye by growing a full beard a year before they “officially” debuted their facial hair look. George married his girlfriend of almost two years, Patti Boyd, and also headed for the Caribbean for a honeymoon. Paul remained in London, and plunged into intellectual pursuits.

John often gets credit for being the “experimental” Beatle, but the trend was started by Paul around this time, who began being associated with places like the Indica Art Gallery and people like art dealer Robert Fraser, artists Peter Blake and John Dunbar, and writer Barry Miles. He assisted with the launch of the famous “underground” newspaper International Times, attended lectures and concerts by modernist composers, and basically gorged himself on every scrap of intellectual stimuli he could get his hands on. He was the first Beatle to really experiment with the possibilities of home recording, creating sound-saturated tape loops by removing the eraser head of his Brennell Mark V reel-to-reel recorder.

A lot of this may have been instigated by living for almost three years with the family of his long-time girlfriend, actress Jane Asher. The influence of the unconventional and sophisticated Ashers was bound to rub off on Paul. Jane’s father, Dr. Richard Asher, was a brilliant endocrinologist, mother Margaret was an oboe professor at the Guildhall School, and brother Peter was half of the music duo Peter and Gordon. The press at the time reported Paul’s unusual living arrangement (millionaire pop star living in girlfriend’s parents’ attic) as being quite chaste — like another sibling. But given how open-minded the Ashers were, one would have to assume nocturnal navigations between the two bedrooms were undertaken. Even so, after a couple of years, Paul realized he needed a place of his own. He bought a large townhouse on Cavendish Avenue, just around the corner from Abbey Road Studios, in 1965. By the time it was ready for him to move in it was early 1966, and Paul had begun his cultural crash-course. By staying in London, he was staying close to the action.

John realized he had miscalculated by opting for the mansion way out in the countryside, and frequently expressed his envy of Paul’s being at the heart of things. He did what he could from his more isolated environs, mostly reading — and experimenting with another new development of 1966: LSD. More on that below.

George, although he did not eschew the acid experience at this stage, was choosing to expand his consciousness via more spiritual means. His interest in Indian religion and philosophy was growing by leaps and bounds, and now he found the time to devote himself to studying it — and struggle with learning the difficult-to-master sitar.

Their desire to improve their minds in this fashion was typical of intelligent people who had missed large portions of traditional education. “Having gone from the classroom to The Cavern, they leapfrogged the university experience,” said journalist Tony Barrow.

During this time, the individual Beatles sat for lengthy interviews with radio and print journalists such as Alan Freeman, Ray Coleman, and Maureen Cleave, who took them seriously and asked sophisticated, grown-up questions — a welcome change from their inane group press conferences when on tour. Although the philosophical underpinnings of these interviews would come back to haunt John in the coming months.

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March 1966 — back to work

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The Class of ‘66: Scaling Rock’s First Mighty Peak

It is a long-established trope among classic rock aficionados that 1966 has a special place in music history — something was in the air, something that pushed bands and artists to experiment and explore new sonic territory, producing their very best work. Music that made rock, pop, and soul “grow up” and become music for discerning adults, rather than disposable entertainment for the bubble-gum set. Any time there’s a poll in some dinosaur-rock magazine or website, three specific 1966 albums (you know what they are) always seem to swap around the top spots.103751_max

Fifty years down the road, is it time for a re-examination of 1966? Do the vaunted, classic albums actually hold up, or has “1966” just become a lazy shorthand for an incredibly brief period of musical development that will never be replicated in a space of twelve months ever again, while the actual albums themselves grow inflated and overrated, and at the same time, dusty and rarely listened to?

First of all, it must be remembered that in 1966, the rock album was still in its infancy. Bands like the Beatles and solo artists like Bob Dylan were working hard to change that, but even in 1966, the album charts were dominated by traditional, non-rock artists (Herb Alpert, Frank Sinatra), soundtracks (Dr. Zhivago), and left-field novelties (The Ballad of the Green Berets).

I had a good time re-listening to these recordings from almost nine years before my birth with an eye on their place in history, and I came to the conclusion that 1966’s reputation is deserved, but should be looked at as the beginning of something, the first of many peaks, at least as far as “good album years” are concerned. (1991, anyone?)

And the albums that made the year’s reputation — and kicked open the door to the format becoming commercially dominant — were actually very few in number. Both Britain and the U.S. each had a group of albums I call “The Big 5.” By general consensus, these are the what made 1966 “1966”:

[A note on chart positions: The U.S. has one generally accepted music sales chart — Billboard. The U.K. had several different publications — Disc, Record Retailer, New Musical Express, and Melody Maker — each with their own method of charting a record’s success. I used whichever was the highest for a particular album.]

TEAM U.K.

The Beatles — RevolverRevolver

Release Date: August 5

Highest Chart Position: #1 (U.S. & U.K.)

The “what-is-the-best-Beatles-album” question is as pointless as it is personal. You’ve got the Abbey Road boosters, the Rubber Soul fanatics, the people who love the innocence and energy of their debut Please Please Me, and the people who love the hippie-baroque intricacies of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Then there’s people like me, who say Revolver is their best (by a slim whisker — it’s the most formidable discography in popular music.) My group has has been growing larger over the past several years. Sgt. Pepper’s star has faded a little, and Revolver’s reputation has finally clawed its way past it. The swaggering confidence they had as masters of the recording studio has seeped into the grooves of this record. They opened a dizzying bag of studio tricks: varispeed, tape loops, flanging, phasing, everything tried backwards, upside down, and sideways. The sheer musical variety from track to track demonstrates their effortless ear for genre and pastiche. From Harrison’s classical Indian piece “Love You To” to McCartney’s brass-saturated Memphis soul tribute “Got To Get You Into My Life,” to Lennon’s attempt (often imitated, never bettered) to create the audio equivalent of an LSD trip on “Tomorrow Never Knows,” Revolver shows off a band at the absolute top of its game. And I didn’t even mention “Eleanor Rigby.” Or “Yellow Submarine.” Or “Taxman.” Or “Good Day Sunshine.” Or “She Said She Said.” Each worthy of an essay of their own. And there’s still more great stuff…it’s a hell of an album.

The Rolling Stones — AftermathRSAftermathUK

Release Date: April 15

Highest Chart Position: #1 (U.K.), #2 (U.S.)

The Stones started their career as a better-than-average R&B cover band, but didn’t truly come into their own until the Jagger-Richards songwriting team kicked into gear in ‘65 with two blistering singles, “The Last Time” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” By the spring of 1966, they were ready to unleash their first all-original album on an unsuspecting public. Their R&B roots were almost nowhere to be heard, replaced by a brittle, bitter form of power pop. The songs perfectly captured the mood of being a young, jaded rock star in Swinging London, and were underpinned by Charlie Watts’ light, jazzy touch on the drums. No heroics yet from future guitar god Keith Richards, who contributes a few stinging, fuzz-pedal lines here and there. The real show is band founder, multi-instrumentalist (and soon-to-be-ousted) Brian Jones, providing exotic textures on sitar, marimba, dulcimer, harpsichord, and a variety of bells, chimes, and random percussion. [Like many U.K. albums, Aftermath hit U.S. shores in altered form – a different cover and shorter track list. Unlike the clearly inferior U.S. version of Revolver, which simply cut the three Lennon tracks that had already appeared earlier in the year on the U.S.-only Yesterday…And Today, the American Aftermath is actually defensible – cutting four tracks (two of which were very sub-par) and adding the first-rate “Paint It, Black,” which had been a stand-alone single in the U.K.]

The Kinks — Face To FaceFace_to_Face_(The_Kinks_album)_coverart

Release Date: October 28

Highest Chart Position: #8 (U.K.), #135 (U.S.)

The Kinks outgrew the aggressive, distorted riffs that made their early reputation (“You Really Got Me,” “All Day And All Of The Night”), and began taking a gentler, subtler approach. Chief writer Ray Davies began focusing on evocative and eccentric character studies (culminating in the awesome “Sunny Afternoon” which closes this album), all steeped in distinctly British pre-rock traditions — music hall, pub singalongs, light classical, and flourishes of Celtic folk. When he wasn’t writing about dandies, session musicians, exclusive residences for sale, or Hawaiian vacations, Davies turned inward, exploring his own fragile psyche (“Too Much On My Mind” “Rainy Day In June”). Sessions for the album began right after Davies’ recuperation from a much-discussed, Brian Wilson-esque nervous breakdown. The album was well-received in Britain, then faded from memory, even going out of print for several years. Its fortunes were revived when people began talking about 1966 in reverent tones, and it has received several deluxe reissues.

The Who — A Quick OneA_quick_one

Release Date: December 9

Highest Chart Position: #4 (U.K.), #51 (U.S.)

By their own admission, the Who’s second album was a patchy affair based on the half-baked idea that other band members should contribute two original songs, rather than relying solely on Pete Townshend. Roger Daltrey coughed up one (the decent “See My Way”), and drummer Keith Moon cribbed the melody from a half-remembered TV theme song (Man From Interpol) and turned it into the brass band instrumental “Cobwebs And Strange.” Moon’s second offering was a haunting little trifle called “I Need You” (supposedly about the ego-bruising experience of nightclubbing with the Beatles), which I suspect received uncredited help from Townshend. A perfunctory cover of “Heatwave” does no favors. Luckily, the strengths of the album are noteworthy. A Quick One did boast some underrated Townshend gems, including the sublime “So Sad About Us,” and showed off John Entwistle’s skills as a darkly comic songwriter in the Ray Davies vein with “Whiskey Man” and “Boris The Spider.” (Every future Who album except Quadrophenia would feature at least one weird and wonderful Entwistle jam.) Finally, the last track on the album paved the way to the band’s future: the first “rock opera” — a nine-minute, multi-section suite about an extramarital affair called “A Quick One While He’s Away.” (The album’s generic “pop art” cover brought it down a notch. It’s quite hideous.)

John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers – Blues Breakers with EricBluesbreakers_John_Mayall_with_Eric_Clapton Clapton

Release Date: July 22

Highest Chart Position: #6 (U.K.), did not chart in the U.S.

Guitarist Eric Clapton had already established such a reputation during his time with the Yardbirds that bandleader John Mayall included his name in the actual title of the album. Mayall was one of the earliest performers to popularize American blues in Britain (second only to Alexis Korner), acting as an inspiration and mentor to younger acts like the Rolling Stones and the Animals. The Bluesbreakers line-up was always fluid, with Mayall switching off between keyboards and guitar, and a rotating cast of musicians backing him. The band that powered Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton consisted of Mayall (mostly on Hammond organ and harmonica), future Fleetwood Mac bassist John McVie, drummer Hughie Flint, and, of course, Eric Clapton and his sunburst Les Paul playing those impeccable licks that made him a legend. The songs themselves are tasteful and restrained versions (no side-long jamming just yet — it’s still 1966) of classic blues numbers originally by Otis Rush, Robert Johnson, Mose Allison, Little Walter, and others, along with a couple of Mayall originals. (Clapton shyly gives his first ever lead vocal performance on “Ramblin’ On My Mind.”) Continue reading

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The Holy Bee Recommends, #14: “Sinatra: The Chairman” (and to a lesser extent, “Frank: The Voice”) by James Kaplan

“Frank Sinatra saved my life once. I was jumped by a bunch of guys in a parking lot. They were beating me with blackjacks. Sinatra said, ‘Okay, boys, that’s enough…'”                                                                                  –Shecky Greene

I have never been a huge fan of Frank Sinatra, but I certainly can’t deny he was one of the foremost musical artists of the 20th century. (I’m not a fan of ballet or musical theater either, but would never deny the skill and talent required to do them well.) I’ve tried to get into Sinatra, but for all the praise heaped on him for his “phenomenal phrasing” and his way of “living the emotion of a lyric,” my rock-raised ears can’t get around the fact that everything he’s done now sounds dated and hokey. It’s grandfather music. Or nowadays, great-grandfather music. It’s polite. Which makes it all the more wonder that it comes from perhaps one of the most impolite human beings that ever existed. Sinatra may have hated rock — and he did, with all the passion his passionate nature could muster — but in personality and demeanor, he was first rock star, maybe even the first punk (although to someone of Sinatra’s generation, “punk” was a grievous insult.)

The post-1954 Frank Sinatra as depicted by James Kaplan (and many others) is, more often than not, a generally unpleasant person. Thoughtless, hyper-sensitive, and supremely self-centered at the best of times, he often melted down into rages that were literally toddler-like: screaming, throwing things, breaking things, hitting people — because he didn’t get his way on some minor matter. When asked why those close to him tolerated it, they usually said something about his formidable charm and bottomless generosity when his mood was lighter…and of course that talent, and “that voice.” But for a reader like myself who isn’t a particular fan of “that voice,” his behavior is inexcusable. His story, however, is fascinating…

Sinatra: The Chairman is the just-published second of a two-volume biography by Kaplan, but the first, Frank: The Voice (2010), feels like nothing more than an extended prologue, chronicling the singer’s early years in Hoboken (as an indulged only child of a lower-middle class family, not the tough street gangster he claimed to be), his rise to fame as a skinny, bow-tied “crooner” singing with the big bands in the 1940s, and finally his temporary plunge into semi-obscurity. (Peter Guralnick’s two-volume Elvis Presley biography has the opposite issue; the first volume, Last Train To Memphis, is riveting, and the second, Careless Love, feels like a perfunctory denouement.)

Kaplan’s first volume lingers for its entire final third on those wilderness years of 1950-53 — dumped by Columbia Records and MGM, Sinatra limped through hosting a short-lived, low-rated variety show on CBS, sang to half-filled halls, and clung to fame primarily through his rocky marriage to rising star Ava Gardner. Frank: The Voice ends in early 1954 on a note of triumph — it’s Oscar night and Sinatra has just won Best Supporting Actor for From Here To Eternity (he had begged for the role when no one wanted to hire him.) The ink has just dried on his contract with Capitol Records, where his newly-matured voice and partnership with a number of gifted arrangers (Nelson Riddle foremost among them) put him at the forefront of American popular music.

This is where Sinatra: The Chairman begins, and rewards the reader for making the slog through Frank: The Voice. This is where we get the Sinatra we want to hear about — the Mafia ties, the brawls, the womanizing, the Rat Pack, the iconic Capitol albums, the dabbling in Kennedy-era politics…Kaplan does not disappoint. When I call the first volume a slog, that’s not a knock on Kaplan’s writing. In both books it’s wonderful, almost novelistic prose. What I mean is Sinatra’s early years, personally and professionally, are his least interesting. 1954 and beyond is where the real meat is.

Kaplan weaves Sinatra’s story in and out of a larger cultural picture. Like the first volume, a generous portion of Sinatra: The Chairman focuses on a few key years, in this case, 1960 to 1963, when Sinatra parked himself at an exciting and somewhat dangerous intersection of entertainment, organized crime (he was friends with Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana), and politics (he lobbied hard for JFK in the 1960 presidential campaign, and even partied with the Massachusetts senator several times early on, before Kennedy wisely began distancing himself.) Kaplan explains and intercuts all of these meticulously-researched threads without ever losing momentum, with a keen eye for the details he knows we want, and never becoming salacious or losing his academic tone. As we move through the 1960s, Kaplan also begins intercutting Sinatra’s story with the rise of the Beatles (by implication declaring them the other great musical phenomenon of the 20th century), and the rapidly-changing face of popular music in that decade. The sands once again shift beneath Sinatra’s feet as he ages out of any real relevance everywhere but Vegas showrooms and the cocktail parties of old Palm Springs millionaires. (Admittedly, it’s pretty cool that the marquees in Vegas would simply say “HE’S HERE” with no further information needed.)

Biographies sometimes find it difficult to strike a balance between telling the story of a life, and examining the work that life produced. They often either dwell on their subject’s psyche, or read like a chronological resume of projects. Kaplan does an excellent job interspersing Sinatra’s films and recordings into the overall picture, giving a good impression of what clicked and what didn’t, both with the artist himself (Sinatra did not care much for “Strangers In The Night,” and absolutely hated “My Way”), and with the public that paid for the results. Continue reading

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Just Another Shi**y Pop Movie?: The Beatles’ “HELP!” Turns 50 (Part 3)

HELP_logo

Realizing John’s songwriting pen had struck gold, the Beatles raced to Abbey Road on the evening of April 13, 1965 (after spending a long day filming, then doing a lengthy radio interview from a car in the studio parking lot — I’m telling you, their calendars were packed) and emerged with not only a massive hit single, but also the film’s official title.

“Help!” the song is arguably one of the all-time greatest Beatles singles. Its gutsy lead vocal from John, and innovative backing vocals from Paul and George (the lyrics in the backing vocals at times actually precede the lead vocals — a minor but notable twist to the formula), backed by the powerful, Ritchie Havens-like pounding of John’s acoustic rhythm guitar (a Framus 12-string), Ringo’s flawless drumming, and the jangling, descending lead guitar lines of George (played on a Gretsch Tennessean) that almost single-handedly launched everyone from the Byrds to R.E.M, combine to create something that was probably much, much better than a song called “Eight Arms To Hold You” would have been. That name was gratefully relegated to the scrap heap.

The opening title sequence where the band performs the song was filmed on April 22.

The title sequence

The title sequence, Twickenham Studios, April 22, 1965. Lennon’s 12-string acoustic heard on the actual song is replaced by a Gibson 6-string here, but the Framus can be seen in the “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” sequence later in the film.

lennonThere is an eerie, odd moment when the Beatles are in the departure lounge of Heathrow Airport (filmed at Twickenham on April 27) fleeing to the Bahamas in disguise. John’s disguise — big beard and round, wire-rimmed glasses — is exactly how he would look four years later — check the cover of 1969’s Abbey Road.

SIDE NOTE: Is Help! racist? Some modern internet reviews display a very laudable 21st-century concern that the film’s treatment of Eastern religion is, shall we say, not the most enlightened. George Harrison’s most recent biographer, Graeme Thomson, sniffs haughtily that “Help! is their least soulful, least committed project, in which alternative spirituality is mockingly played for the broadest of laughs.” Thomson may be overstating the case somewhat (and the remark was a sufficient enough irritant to the Holy Bee to inspire these blog posts.) The unnamed cult in the film does not seem to be a jibe at Hinduism, Krishnaism, or any other form of real religious worship. What they actually seem to be based on is the Thuggee, a bloodthirsty group of thieves and murderers that once terrorized the Indian subcontinent. If that’s Thomson’s idea of “alternative spirituality,” then he certainly has more issues than the film.

Lester directing Ringo and an

Lester directing Ringo and an “Indian” extra. It looks like Ringo has a 21st-century cell phone in his front pocket, but it’s a pack of cigs.

The Thuggee were also the villains in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which has had its own accusations of presenting institutionalized colonial racism as if it were acceptable. The Thuggee were definitely devotees of Kali, but unlike the demon goddess demanding blood sacrifice depicted here and in Temple of Doom, Kali is a loved and accepted (if not always benevolent) member of the pantheon of Hindu gods. In this case, I suppose both films are guilty of fostering a misapprehension.  However, this is Help!, the goofy, written-in-ten-days musical romp that’s a half-century old. Anyone expecting documentary-style accuracy on actual Hindu religious rites should look elsewhere.

And not that any religion is treated with reverence in the Help! universe. “They have to paint me red before they chop me,” Ringo patiently explains at one point. “It’s a different religion from ours. [Long pause]…I think.”

Some also decry the fact that all of the “Indians” are played by lily-white English actors. That, of course, is part of the overall joke, and the English are the butts of it. Despite their Empire being long gone, the English are so childishly pleased with themselves and their way of life that they suspect that everyone, deep down, is really just like them. (As Clang is growling instructions to the henchmen in Hindi, Bhuta looks on helplessly. “I don’t speak the language,” he admits to no one in particular. “Latin, yes, but this Eastern babble…” he concludes with a resigned shrug, like a good British public-school boy.)

In general, the film is just a mild culture clash, with the working-class Scouser/Cockney attitudes toward the “mystic East” tending more toward tolerant befuddlement or innocent cluelessness. If you’re really looking for something to be offended about, I suppose you could find it in Help!, but you’d need to put forth the effort. Keep in mind, Harrison’s and the Beatles’ sincere interest in Indian religion inspired by their work on the film did lead directly to a more educated and informed view in subsequent years.

beatles-help-image1

At some point in late April or May, the band dug out their heavy Austrian ski outfits to be photographed for the promotional materials, including the movie poster and album cover. Photographer Robert Freeman’s original intention was to have them spell out H-E-L-P with their arms in semaphore. That formation looked awkward and didn’t photograph well, so, in Freeman’s words, “we decided to improvise and ended up with the best graphic positioning of the arms.” They roughly spell out “NUJV” or “NVUJ”, depending on which version of the picture you’re looking at.

I had naturally assumed the “semaphore” photos were shot on location in Austria, but soon remembered that was almost a month before the title had been conceived. (Add to that fact that no version of the semaphore photos with an actual Austrian background can be found — they’re always superimposed onto other things: record sleeves, posters, books, etc., which indicates a later studio shoot against a blank backing. There is a brief arms-extended shot in the “Ticket To Ride” sequence that may have sparked the idea.) The official still photographer on the set of Help! was not Freeman, but Emilio Lari.

jpgrass

Smoke break on Salisbury Plain. I would love to own McCartney’s outfit, but doubt I could pull it off.

The first three days of May were spent creating a visually striking sequence on the windswept Salisbury Plain with a noticably freezing, shivering band playing “I Need You” and “The Night Before.” (In the film, this was an presented as an unorthodox outdoor recording session, so that the Beatles — a national treasure — could be protected from all the nefarious forces out to do them harm by a ring of armored tanks while cutting their latest record.)

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The last few days of the shoot were spent at Cliveden House, a 19th century mansion in the Berkshire countryside, whose large, paneled rooms were a believable stand-in for the interiors of Buckingham Palace.

At Cliveden House

At Cliveden House

Practically as soon as “cut” was called on their last scene on May 11, the Beatles hit the recording studio again (in fact, they had begun the night before.) This time they turned their attention to the second half of the Help! album, the material that would not be in the film. Through May and June, the Beatles bounced between the Twickenham recording studio, doing post-sync sound work on the final cut of Help!, and their regular recording studio on Abbey Road, laying down “Dizzy Miss Lizzy,” “Bad Boy,” “I’m Down,” “I’ve Just Seen A Face,” “It’s Only Love,” “Act Naturally,” and “Yesterday.” The Vox Continental organ replaced the Hohner Pianet as the keyboard flavor-of-the-week during these sessions. (The Hammond organ, mellotron, and Moog were all waiting in the wings…)

They also recorded the appropriately-titled “Wait,” which would end up on Rubber Soul later in ‘65. “If You’ve Got Trouble” and “That Means A Lot” were shit-canned, until both were resurrected for the outtake-based Anthology project in the 1990s.

help british singleOn June 20, they steeled themselves for another round of touring the world, playing the usual 30-minute inaudible shows into a maelstrom of hysterical screams. On July 23, the “Help!” single was released (backed by “I’m Down”) to whet the public’s appetite for the upcoming film and album.

Help! received a Royal Premiere at the London Pavilion in Piccadilly Circus on July 29, 1965, the same day it hit cinemas throughout Britain. The band was on a break between the European and American legs of their tour, and were able to put on their tuxes and attend. It was a box-office hit, although critics, as we’ve seen, were noticeably more lukewarm compared to the raves they gave A Hard Day’s Night.

Beatles & Beatle wives at the Help! premiere

Beatles & Beatle wives at the Help! premiere

The British and American soundtrack albums were two very different entities, following the pattern established by the A Hard Day’s Night soundtrack. In the UK, both  A Hard Day’s Night and Help! were released as proper Beatles albums, with two full sides of original music. The first side featured songs from the film, and the second side featured additional “album-only” songs. The only deviation from standard Beatles recording policy on the British soundtracks was the inclusion of singles, which ordinarily would not be included on a UK album. United Artists dictated, however, that the title song of the movie be released as a single around the same time as the movie/album release, and that the movie/album include an already-released proven hit single of recent vintage (“Can’t Buy Me Love” in the case of A Hard Day’s Night, “Ticket To Ride” for Help!).

On the American versions, only the seven songs heard in each film were included on the A Hard Day’s Night and Help! records, spread over both sides and interspersed with sections of the orchestral scores by George Martin and Ken Thorne, respectively. Kind of a rip-off, really, to be paying full album price for what was essentially a half-album of Beatles songs. In fact, the American Help! was packaged as a “deluxe” album with a gatefold sleeve, and priced $1 higher than a standard album when it hit shelves on August 13, 1965.

George Martin was not invited back to provide the score for Help!. Martin later complained that Letser “fancied himself a musician,” and constantly second-guessed Martin’s scoring choices in an undiplomatic and overbearing manner, leading to some bitter arguments. Lester’s choice of composer Ken Thorne to score the film is not without interest, however unwelcome his presence on a supposed Beatles album might be. His score for Help! consists mostly of orchestral and Indian re-workings of the Beatles songs “A Hard Day’s Night,” “From Me To You,” and “You Can’t Do That,” along with a few snippets of classical pieces, and, naturally, the “James Bond Theme.” Continue reading

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Just Another Shi**y Pop Movie?: The Beatles’ “HELP!” Turns 50 (Part 2)

Help! had no shortage of good actors, although the Beatles would not count themselves among them…

Leo McKern as Clang

Leo McKern as Clang

High Priest Clang was played by Leo McKern, a character actor with a distinctive round face and bulbous nose who already had a long theatrical and film career going back to the 1940s (including an appearance in Lester’s Running Jumping & Standing Still Film). Help! launched him to a higher level, and he went on to give notable performances in A Man For All Seasons, Ryan’s Daughter, and The Blue Lagoon. He is probably most remembered by British viewers (and the American PBS audience) as the barrister Horace Rumpole in the BBC TV series Rumpole Of The Bailey, which ran off and on from 1975 through 1992.

Eleanor Bron as Ahme

Eleanor Bron as Ahme

High Priestess Ahme was played by Eleanor Bron in her film debut. The young actress with a strikingly unconventional look was already well-known for being the first female performer in a Cambridge University Footlights revue (the previously all-male theatrical club was also the launching pad for David Frost, Peter Cook, future Pythons John Cleese, Graham Chapman, and Eric Idle, and later, Douglas Adams, Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson, and on and on…) She made a name for herself in the emerging world of modern British satire. With fellow Footlight John Fortune, she created a male/female comedy duo act for Peter Cook’s Establishment nightclub (similar to the sort of thing Mike Nichols and Elaine May were doing in the US around the same time). She also was a performer on David Frost’s Not So Much A Programme, More A Way Of Life (1964-65). After Help!, she continued performing in film, television, stage, and radio, and authored several books.

A lot of sources say her name inspired the title of the 1966 Beatles song “Eleanor Rigby,” but this may not be so. real Eleanor Rigby has a grave in the St. Peter’s Parish Church cemetery in Liverpool, which the teenage McCartney often used as a shortcut on his ramblings around town.

John Bluthal as Bhuta

John Bluthal as Bhuta

Bhuta, Clang’s long-suffering sidekick, was played by John Bluthal, who had worked with Richard Lester for many years (he was the car thief in A Hard Day’s Night), and would go on to do so for many years more. Modern audiences might recognize him as the blind street musician who owns the chimpanzee (“min-key”) in Return of the Pink Panther, or Professor Pacoli in the opening sequence of The Fifth Element.

Roy Kinnear as Algernon

Roy Kinnear as Algernon

Dr. Foot’s assistant, Algernon, was played by Roy Kinnear. (“He’s an idiot,” says Foot of Algernon. “A degree in woodworking. I ask you.”) Like Bluthal, the rotund Kinnear was a member of Lester’s “stock company,” appearing in most of his films. And like Bron, he was a veteran of Britain’s satire boom of the early Sixties, appearing in David Frost’s That Was The Week That Was in 1962-63. (Frost seemingly came up with a different satirical comedy show for every TV season.) Kinnear’s performance is quite possibly the comedic highlight of Help!. The Behm/Wood screenplay has no shortage of lines that aren’t particularly funny to read, but become funny in performance. Kinnear is a genius in this area. Some examples:

“I’m better with animals than plugs and transistors, Daddy being the local master of the hounds. That’s where I get it from, my love of animals. They trust me. [Long pause, then wistfully] I should have been in vivisection.”

“[To Ringo] You’re a drummer, eh? I’m no mean hand at the ol’ sticks-man stuff myself, you know,” [Then randomly slaps the back of an office chair for several seconds with his hands.]

Victor Spinetti as Dr. Foot

Victor Spinetti as Dr. Foot

Everyone loves, or should love, Roy Kinnear. Most people know him as Veruca Salt’s father in 1971’s Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory. He never did much work in the US, but his British filmography is pretty impressive.

The mad scientist, Dr. Foot, was played by Victor Spinetti. Spinetti, described by Wikipedia as a “raconteur,” was a Welsh-born actor who did most of his work writing, directing, and acting on the theater stage (while still managing to appear in over 30 films). He appeared in a major role in A Hard Day’s Night (as the neurotic TV director), and the Beatles loved him so much they insisted he be in their second film. After Help!, he continued his association with the band, appearing on their fan-club Christmas recordings, adapting Lennon’s book of nonsense stories and verse, In His Own Write, into a stage play, and making an appearance in Magical Mystery Tour. Paul McCartney described him as “the man who makes clouds disappear,” and George Harrison told him “you’ve got to be in all our films…if you’re not in them, my mum won’t come and see them — because she fancies you.” (Mrs. Harrison was shit out of luck — like Graham Chapman, Spinetti was openly and flamboyantly gay in an era when it could still be career suicide to do so.) john-lennon-victor-spinetti_01

Patrick Cargill as Superintendent Gluck

Patrick Cargill as Superintendent Gluck

Another flamboyant British theatrical eccentric, Patrick Cargill, played Superintendent Gluck of Scotland Yard. Cargill was a fixture of British stage and television for decades, although his two popular TV shows, Father, Dear Father and The Many Wives of Patrick didn’t get much play Stateside. One of Cargill’s great moments in the film, in addition to his obsession with the word “famous,” is his insistence that he is a great mimic (“James Cagney” he proudly cites among his repertoire), followed by his attempt to do an Liverpudlian impression of Ringo over the phone. “Hullo, this is the famous Ringo speaking, gear-fab, what can I do for you as it were, gear-fab?” (“Not a bit like Cagney,” George remarks acidly.)

The Beatles began the Help! project in John Lennon’s home music room, him and Paul crafting to order the songs that would be heard in the film. They had been playing a winter residency at the historic Hammersmith Odeon theater in London from December 1964 through January 1965. In the chilly afternoons before the performances, Paul would drive out to Lennon’s country home in Weybridge and hammer out the soundtrack for the movie they knew they would be filming in a month or so. (Cynthia Lennon related in her memoir that if deadlines were particularly tight, Lennon and McCartney would collaborate over the phone.)

“We made a game of it. John and I wrote [each of] the songs within two or three hours — our ‘time allotted.’ It hardly ever took much longer than that.” (Paul McCartney.) If a song didn’t at least start to come together in the time allotted, they figured it wasn’t worth the effort and moved on.

Armed with several Lennon-McCartney compositions written expressly for the film, and two George Harrison songs to boot, the band arrived at EMI Studios on Abbey Road on February 15, 1965. They recorded the basic tracks for “Ticket To Ride,” “Another Girl,” and “I Need You.” Those three songs were completed the following day, along with a song that was not destined to end up the the film, “Yes It Is.”

hohner pianet

McCartney plays the Pianet on “Tell Me What You See”

On February 17, “The Night Before” was recorded, along with another non-film song “You Like Me Too Much,” both heavily featuring the Hohner Pianet electric piano, which they saw one of their opening acts use at the Odeon shows. (Like a lot of the band’s new musical “toys,” the Pianet was briefly obsessed over, then virtually abandoned. Harrison’s just-purchased volume-control guitar pedal, all over the previous day’s “I Need You” and “Yes It Is,” met a similar fate after the Help! sessions.)

February 18 was an epic recording day, with “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” completed, along with the non-film song “Tell Me What You See” and an unreleased Lennon-McCartney song with Ringo on lead vocals, “If You’ve Got Trouble” (which was so awful, the Beatles gave up on it almost immediately, managing only a single take — though they did do a few overdubs and gave it a rough mix, just in case.)

February 19 saw the recording of “You’re Going To Lose That Girl.” The final tweaking, overdubbing, and mixing of the soundtrack songs occurred on February 20, along with an attempt at another song destined for the reject pile, “That Means A Lot.”  Continue reading

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